100 Years of Louis Cha: The Legacy of Jin Yong

It is an interesting paradox that Hong Kong’s most successful author never actually wrote about Hong Kong in his novels. Jin Yong, the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, also known as Zha Liangyong, is without a doubt the best loved and widely read writer of Chinese martial arts fiction of all times. And all of his stories take place, quite naturally for the genre, in classical China – albeit a rather fantastical version of it that makes no pretence at historical accuracy. 

Jin Yong’s work is internationally renowned, beginning with readers in Chinese diaspora and then increasingly with those who became fascinated with kung fu and martial art novels through the numerous film adaptations, operas, TV series, radio dramas, comics, and — more recently — video games, like Tencent’s streaming game Code: To Jin Yong. The commercial success of Jin Yong, with tens of millions of copies of his books sold, has no parallels in Hong Kong literature, and his fame truly spans the whole world.

Among the diaspora, even those who cannot read Chinese entered Jin Yong’s world, like Hong Kong-Canadian artist Howie Tsui. “My introduction to Jin Yong’s work was through TVB’s 1983 adaptation of the Legend of the Condor Heroes into a TV series,” he says. “I was attracted to these stories due to the vastness of the world he created, the complex interlocking storylines and how he dissolved the boundaries between history and fantasy.” Tsui’s work depicts otherworldly heroes, with bodies that seem deformed by the power of narrative imagination, warriors, fighters, and anti-heroes that levitate from Jin Yong’s novels, transmuting and giving birth to yet more fantasy characters. 

Louis Cha was born in Haining, in the mainland province of Zhejiang, on March 10, 1924, and moved to Hong Kong in 1948. His funeral in 2018 was attended by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, as well as former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, along with writers, actors and hundreds of his readers. Cha’s ashes are interred in Ngong Ping, at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. 

While Louis Cha spent most of his life in Hong Kong, his creative mind was always firmly anchored in the stories, legends, moral values and martial art knowledge that abound in classical Chinese literature; and in the fighting schools real or legendary that have existed for centuries in the country. These could be independent groups of sworn-brothers (and less commonly sworn-sisters) that lived on the margins of society or who stayed in the shadows under false identity, after having vowed to protect the emperor or some other honourable figure to whom they felt an unbreakable allegiance. Other such groups of fighting heroes that populate Chinese literature and historical records were instead attached to famous monasteries that trained monks in both mental and physical prowess (think of the Shaolin kung fu fighting monks). 

Louis Cha took from all these sources aplenty, regardless of how much they were based in factual history or concocted by some fertile imagination, in order to create his own highly entertaining and extravagant stories, always steeped in a chivalrous morality where honour, blind loyalty and self-cultivation are the main pillars. “His is a very mythicised idea of China,” says Gregory Lee, professor of Chinese Studies at St Andrew’s University in Scotland. “For him, the past is a playground.”

He proved so highly skilled at writing in this vein, and so commercially successful, that he has become nearly synonymous with the term wuxia (mou5 haap6 武俠 in Cantonese), the Chinese name for what in English can be called “cloak and dagger” novels. The two Chinese characters mean “martial” and “hero” or “chivalrous.” This is a literary genre which has existed, in one form or another, for a very long time in China: already in the famous literary classic, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (written in 91 BCE), we can read of itinerant martial art heroes, who become the protagonists of youxia tales (jau4 haap6 遊俠, “wandering hero”) endlessly retold and embellished. A large portion of classical Chinese novels such as Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh are themselves wuxia novels, with gripping fighting scenes in which magical tricks are mixed with extreme agility and speed from heroes and anti-heroes who have trained their body and mind for decades.  

Less well-known is that Louis Cha started off not as a novelist but as a journalist. In 1947, while the Chinese Civil War was still raging, the future Jin Yong started work in Shanghai, at the Ta Kung Pao newspaper. He was then dispatched to Hong Kong to work at the local edition of the same newspaper, after which he switched to the evening edition, the now-defunct New Evening Post, as Deputy Editor. That’s when his life changed, quite dramatically, as his first wuxia novel was serialised in the newspaper in 1955, with roaring success. 

That was The Book and the Sword, published in English in 2005 in Graham Earnshaw’s translation. It already carried many of Louis Cha’s major themes. The story retells a famous legend of Haining, Cha’s birthplace, from the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912); concerning Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799), arguably China’s greatest emperor. The legend narrates that the reigning Hongli is not the legitimate son of the Yongzheng Emperor (1678–1735) but the result of a child-swap with the Chen family. This would have made China’s greatest emperor a Han Chinese child, and not the heir of the conquering Manchus that had invaded China in 1644 – a story that is quite dear to some of today’s nationalists. (Han is the official term used to refer to the ethnicity shared by roughly 90 percent of people in mainland China; it has its roots in the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 202 BCE to 220 CE, with a brief interruption in the middle.)

The legend has no historical currency, but it has been kept alive by the existence of a well-preserved house in Haining that had belonged to Chen Shiguang, a Qing Dynasty official who was visited by the Qianlong emperor during his southern tours. The book adds extra pathos to the story, as the ethnic cover of the emperor is discovered by patriots (that is, anti-Manchu nationalists) and, to put a romantic twist in the mix, the crux of the story revolves around the Fragrant Concubine, a Muslim Uyghur girl from Xinjiang of whom the emperor was besotted.From this beginning, Jin Yong continued to write stories with an antique flair about them, but characterised by a more 20th century sensitivity, with a strong pro-Han patriotism. That’s true even in works like Legends of the Condor Heroes, serialised from 1957 to 1959 in Ming Pao — the newspaper that Cha co-founded — and set in the late Song Dynasty (960–1279) as it was being invaded by the Jin from the north, a time when the whole idea of who and what was a Han might have been much less precise. Tying all of the stories together are scenes of amazing fighting prowess, frequent love interests that face formidable obstacles, and a lot of secret identities that are dramatically revealed.

In Legends of the Condor Heroes, translated into English by Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang, the weak Song are despised by the heroes of the books, who can be read expressing their disgust in sentences such as these: 

Shameful! Disgraceful! How did these sorry excuses for men ever become Emperor? 

The emperor has done enough harm to the peasants, it is not really a crime to take something back. Steal from the government that steals from its own people.

An important anecdote, however, might give some background to his dislike — at least literary — for the invading Qing, a dynasty considered foreign; or his distaste for the weaknesses of the Song centuries before that. Louis Cha came from a very prestigious family, one that had established itself in Haining around the middle of the 17th century, when the Qing had invaded China. His ancestor Zha Jizuo had been a minister in the short-lived Southern Ming Dynasty (1644–1662) and had fought against the advancing Qing. In spite of this, the family remained a prestigious, literary one, with many more members who took part in the political and cultural life of the times. Still, that fight against the invading dynasty remains as an important element in part at least of Jin Yong’s philosophy.

Conservative in his political outlook and respect for hierarchies, Jin Yong admired chivalry and strength, so in his novels weak emperors are considered traitors to the nation (although the nation was a concept which was nonexistent in imperial times, but that’s a different matter). So in the Condor Heroes series he shows real admiration for Genghis Khan, even if the Mongol troops are the ones that will put an end to the Song Dynasty: they are great warriors, and follow a code of bravery and honour while fighting.

Louis Cha Leung-yung, or Zha Liangyong,  wrote under the pen name Jin Yong, 2011

From The Book and the Sword onwards, Jin Yong started to write at a prodigious speed in order to have a new instalment to be serialised every single day; his stories were so successful, newspapers relied on them for sales. By the late 1970s, Jin Yong’s fame had become such, thanks to Hong Kong produced movies and TV adaptations, that his works started being widely translated into many Asian languages, from Japanese to Vietnamese, Malay just to name a few. His translation into English, however, took a lot longer – partially due to the intrinsic challenges of translating such an author for a public unfamiliar with kung fu, Chinese culture, and religions such as Taoism and Buddhism. 

That eventually changed and his works are now available to English readers. His translator Gigi Chang, who has also tackled the mammoth task of translating the second part of Condor Heroes, which is called Return of the Condor Heroes and starts with A Past Unearthed, is candid about the challenges linked to rendering Jin Yong exciting and intelligible for an English-reading audience. “I would say the first challenge is obviously figuring out what is going on in the story,” she says. “The problem is we grew up watching martial art movies and TV shows, so we have a natural visual imagination – but how do we get what we see on TV into words?” 

Chang says Anna Holmwood, who translated the first book of the first Condor Heroes series, was “very good at creating a good system for describing the fights in English, with the rhythm of the English language. The point is not just portraying the action but also the speed, the ferocity: this is when translation switches somewhat into writing. Jin Yong is really fun to read. A page turner, addictive, when we read him as teenagers we do so with an urge, a compulsion. The challenge then is in making it so in English too, and when he uses an existing vocabulary of martial arts terminology, transmit that without puzzling the reader.”

An example of all this can be seen in this brief excerpt from the beginning of the first book of Condor Heroes, called A Hero Born:

The Taoist was amused. “You want to fight?” He tapped Yang’s wrist with his left hand. A numbing pain shot through Yang’s hands to his fingers. Before he realized what was happening, the dagger was gone. Guo was astounded. His friend’s kung fu was much better than his own, but even Yang was powerless against the monk. Guo knew the move was the legendary Bare Hand Seizes Blade, but he had actually never seen anyone perform it. 

In other passages we can see how much certain fighting moves and weapons have names that, on an open minded reader, can sound intriguing and compelling, but slightly too confusing for others:

Judging from the cries and moans, Ke Zhen’e, meanwhile, understood that two of his martial brothers had been badly hurt. He took up his metal staff and as about to join the fray when Gilden Quan called out, “Brother, your iron devilnuts, one in the direction of the Prospering and another towards Small Surpassing!” Before he could finish, Ke had already fired the two metal projectiles, one between Qiu Chuji’s eyebrows and the other at his right hip bone. Qiu Chuji deflected them with the spinning censer, but he was surprised by their weight and the accuracy of Ke Zhen’e’s aim. These weapons were unique to Ke Zhen’e, with points shaped like bat wings, only sharper, and quite unlike the water chestnuts that grew in his hometown around South Lake.  

The reader can still feel the pathos without knowing what Bare Hand Seizes Blade looks like, or even more so, what iron devilnuts might be – or for that matter, where Prospering and Small Surpassing are placed. It is obvious, though, that to reach this level of reading fluidity for a kung fu fight requires a very skilled translator.

Louis Cha’s biography offers an interesting balance to his writing career. His fame in the Chinese speaking world was such that even Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s economic reforms, was a fan, and met with him in 1983. Cha, an OBE (British Order of Chivalry, an honour granted by London) became quite involved in preparing the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and sat on the Basic Law committee and the Preparatory Committee established in 1996. 

Prolific as he was, his writing career lasted relatively little: after the febrile serialisation of his stories, he started a series of endless revisions, which means that most of his novels exist in different versions, according to when they were published. After the late 1980s, his works were the first to be fully published and read in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan simultaneously, once all the bans imposed for perceived comparisons with contemporary politics had been lifted. Meanwhile, he was being read by the various Chinese diasporas in the whole world. 

“His world is a world of the elite, in which you can trace a line all the way back to before the Han Dynasty, even if it is mythical,” says Gregory Lee. “Modern people of Chinese descent felt quite happy to be associated with this mythical idea of China.” It is a modern vision of an ancient land, in which a chivalrous culture is distilled from disparate eras, religions, martial arts, and even medicine or tea-drinking traditions.  

Photos: credit Gigi Chang and Apple Yuen

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2024 will feature two events relating to Jin Yong on Saturday March 9. At the 100th Birthday of Jin Yong, translator Gigi Chang will discuss the author’s legacy. The same day, Creating Worlds of Sci-Fi and Fantasy with feature a panel with Gigi Chang, Ana Merino and Jordan Rivet.

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